15 minutes with….economist Chris Walker on how to regenerate Bradford

For 12 years Chris Walker was a senior economic advisor in Government which included stints at the Treasury and what was then called the Department for Communities and Local Government.

He recently authored a report for property consultants Mace which put forward the case for a new rail hub in Bradford city centre. He believes this could give a £1.5bn per year boost to the much-maligned city. He spoke to Thomas Barrett about how a new rail hub could get their struggling economy moving again.

There has been a lot in the news lately about poor rail connectivity in the north. How damaging is it to towns and cities like Bradford?

It’s extremely damaging. A lot of economists share my view that for the Northern Powerhouse to regain its economic power and strength, east to west rail connectivity is more important than HS2. To get from Liverpool to Hull takes longer than London to Paris. It’s a shambles and it needs to be put right. I think the Northern Powerhouse’s success depends on that.

What surprises came up in your research?

I was already aware that Bradford faces certain economic challenges, so some of the data that I was pulling out around lack of employment and high levels of inactivity I wasn’t surprised about. However, I didn’t realise that Bradford was so big. It’s much more important to its region that I thought it was. Economically Bradford has a great deal of potential particularly around labour supply and releasing that potential.

How do you turn around the negative perceptions of Bradford?

Perceptions can be wrong but often there is no smoke without fire. Especially when people have a lack of opportunity in an area.

That’s one of the striking things about Bradford, particularly for younger people. However, what happens is those negative perceptions completely crowd out all the good things about a place.

It must be about having a suite of policy interventions which turn around the fortunes of a city that hasn’t been performing well economically and hasn’t for quite some time.

Bradford has a lot of history and cultural diversity, but young people can’t get jobs and that’s a tragedy.

There have been a lot of failed regeneration projects in Bradford, how can a rail hub build momentum in the city?

There has to be a holistic view. One area where Bradford has gone wrong is investing in housing but not investing in jobs or attracting investment. The way you attract foreign, direct investment is to improve its infrastructure.

Bradford’s rail connectivity issues are well documented. If you have to go anywhere you have to go to Leeds.

There’s a piece of low hanging fruit there. If you can improve the connectivity of Bradford to other northern cities and beyond, you’re releasing a labour supply that at the moment is relatively cut off. Bradford has a connectivity bottleneck, so if you can somehow unblock that, you could release a lot of potential. Bradford is a young city and a lot of people don’t have jobs or opportunity. That’s what needs turning around.

I looked at some of the economic benefit figures that Birmingham City Council had calculated in relation to their upgraded New Street station. Some of the metrics such as employment rates and job densities between Bradford and Birmingham are quite similar. They have similar labour market characteristics and their economic growth has been quite similar in recent years. It struck me that we could do a piece of analysis that drew on what happened in Birmingham.

Is the Government putting too many eggs in the HS2 basket when they should be sorting out the current service?

HS2 is a bit of a flagship project and there’s all the politics that go with that. Every pound of investment you get with HS2 would get a much better return if you could improve east to west connectivity.

Will the rail hub in Bradford ever happen?

The key question is what happens with Northern Powerhouse rail and whether Bradford can be on that line. My sense is that there’s a very good chance that could happen, and if it does, the economic case for having a station in the city centre then all of a sudden becomes more compelling – don’t ask me to put a percentage on it though!






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